This is the third of four parts about Mary Shelley’s great modern myth. One more part to come.

Unlike Milton’s epic, Frankenstein is purely rooted in the physical universe and is a secular reformation of the Genesis myth. In this world, there is no God and the angels and demons are merely metaphorical creations. Mary Shelley’s presentation of man and monster is starkly modern – humanity is alone in the universe. Like the Creature, we have been abandoned to a godless existence.

For the lonesome Creature, “sin” becomes his good and death his desire (299). He warns humanity, “Beware, for I am fearless, and therefore powerful” (225). The Creature has reached the point of desperation and has “nothing to lose” in his state of complete wretchedness. The overreaching Victor is only potent through the act of creation. Like others in the story, he is ineffective against the power of the Creature. George Levine summarizes the writings of D.H. Lawrence on the subject of post-revolutionary notions that imagined the perfectibility of humankind. Mankind was given the power to shape man and “‘The ideal being was man created by man. And so was the supreme monster’” (28-9). This godless, fearless super powered being might be seen as an early Nietzschean prototype of the anti-modern man (the “modern man” as thoroughly impotent). While the Monster is a deformed Byronic hero, Victor as a failed Gothic hero becomes “a tiresome neurotic whose presence impoverishes the larger portion of the novel that bears his name” (Sherwin 898). 

In the 1818 novel’s introduction, this condition is allegorized through “the tale of the sinful founder of his race whose miserable doom it was to bestow the kiss of death on all the younger sons of his fated house, just when they reached the age of promise” (xvi). For Shelley, this is our fate as well as the fate of the house of Frankenstein and his seemingly deathless creation. Wilt describes this doom as “an economical universe” or by Levine using technological jargon, it is “entropy” (Wilt 36, Levine 17). Technology and, most importantly, the technological world that we have created is the very cause of the stunning powerlessness of modern mankind. This impotence – the broad theme of much of modern twentieth-century literature – is ultimately the albatross around our necks as we stumble through existence in search of some light of hope.

Ultimately, the Creature represents the world that we’ve created. The Creature is ours. Fallen humanity, using its mind or what it believes is the best tool available to it, has pieced together this world from the relics and dreams of the past. George Levine summarizes this well:

The duality of our relationship to creator and creature is an echo of our relationship to the technology that we worship even as we recognize that it is close to destroying us. Another way to express the duality, in technological terms, is through the idea of entropy. Victor’s overreaching is an attempt to create new  life. He fails to recognize the necessary secular-scientific myth of entropy: that in any closed system, the new energy generated will be less than the energy expended in its creation, and that ultimately the system will run down. It took a great deal of death to make the new life; the making of the Monster is at the expense of all of Victor’s immediate world – brother, father, bride, friend. The world of mere matter is both finite and corrupted. Without the incalculable presence of divine spirit, creation can only entail destruction larger than itself. It is, ultimately, this nightmare image that the Monster represents to our culture. (17)

The mitosis of these meanings for Mary Shelley’s monster is indelibly linked to both our subconscious and the formations that come from our mental complexes. This demon is what we, as faulted humans, create. It is what we will. In Milton, as in Genesis, humanity exchanged knowledge for immortality. Ever after, we have sought to regain what we have lost – that is Life – through the very gift that was to be our greatest curse in this Faustian exchange. Like Adam and Eve, humankind remains convinced that knowledge can bring us closer to some higher state – whether it is the aloofness to simply accept our doom or the means to return to some sort of utopia. The promises of the Enlightenment, rational and empirical thought, science and technology have lifted our hopes to the heavens. Frankenstein is a very clear rendering of the height of these dreams and the precipices that fall dangerously below us.

This search for redemption – for paradise – has consumed our thoughts since ancient times. As Woodard explains, “If man’s dominant trait is the will to survive, he has another almost equally strong: to recapture the lost perfection which he knows through his emotional and neural inheritance to lie somewhere in his past” (577-8). Yet these myths of our genesis point to the flaw in our intellectual strategy, or have we forgotten knowledge has come with a price?

The participant in Mary Shelley’s work witnesses young Frankenstein’s intellectual pursuit as a consumption of his energies leaving him numb to external influences. At one point Victor comments that, “nothing contributes so much to tranquillise the mind as a steady purpose – a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye”, yet later he feels “like one doomed to slavery to toil in the mines” (7, 65). For Manson and Stewart, this is modern heroism in “the Promethean struggle against the bounds of the finite, driven simultaneously by the individual’s capacity for divine-like creativity and the ironic recognition of his limitations” (232). The pagan myth of Sisyphus is also evoked with this heroic imagery.

“If the riddle can be answered” Frankenstein has found more than just a temporary paradise of his own creation (7, Woodard 578). What we see in Victor’s singular pursuit, though, is he has “lost all soul or sensation” and he asks, “why does man boast of sensibilities superior to those apparent in the brute, it only renders them more necessary beings. If our impulses were confined to hunger, thirst and desire, we might be nearly free, but now we are moved by every wind that blows, and a chance word or scene that that word may convey to us” (124). As Woodard concludes, “The growing cortex, which was to be man’s glory, was also to be the source of his most traumatic experience” (577). For Sherwin, “the universal life principle” that Frankenstein thinks he has captured through is intellectual creativity, “can never be his instrument for correcting existence” (897). Similarly, the intellect is powerless to solve its own problem of existence. Ironically, the answers seem buried in humanity’s need for the puzzle to be solved with a simpler and more platonically sensual experience without the constant throbbing of our troubled minds.  

The monster of our collective neurology is the world that we have created. Mary Shelley’s novel anticipates modernity and the darkest fruits that our minds have conjured like no other writer before her. The strides of medical science have allowed us to extend the quality and length of life, while making it possible to transplant animal parts into human bodies, eliminate whole populaces through the release of man-made plagues and chemical substances, and possibly even clone soulless replicants for organ harvesting. The Creature represents the gadgets and machines we worship, the buildings, power lines and smoke that have replaced our natural surroundings and the computers, televisions and Blackberries that have taken over our lives. In its most gruesome reality, possibly, is the Monster as atomic weaponry.

Somewhere in all of this is the human soul that stands alone and remains disconnected like Frankenstein’s creature. The existence we continue to tunnel for is just a childhood memory that once gave us, like Victor, “exquisite pleasure” – a memory that barely registers among the complex clutter of playthings and maddeningly noisy pacifiers that make a modern life (39). We remain disconnected from this place we have made and these things that are our creations. For Paul Sherwin this is critical: “The result of all this frantic alienated labor is a being geared in self-torment. As such, the Creature is also a figure that reveals, with more startling accuracy and profundity than discursive reason can command, the existential condition of its progenitor: his relation-disrelation to his world, his thoughts, and himself” (896). The world, like our intellect, is the symptom and a cause of all modern woes.

Paul Sherwin’s psychological probe into Mary Shelley’s novel strikes more than a few chords of the modern condition. Frankenstein, for Sherwin, has removed himself from the stark reality of his world and from “ordinary awareness and relatedness”. This world “recedes from him in much the manner that a dream fades at the instant of awakening” until he can curl up in “a zone of reality where he can be utterly alone” (892). The Monster is “a marginal or boundary being” that Sherwin calls “a powerful representation of our uncertain lot, suspended as we are between knowledge and power, nature and supernature, objectivity and subjectivity” (891). In the attempt to find ourselves, we have made ourselves a monster (Cottom 60). The monster we are dissolves from one reality into another and is most monstrous, in fact, because it can not be satisfactorily defined. The law-breaking bolt of lightening that reanimates the animalistic parts of our being deepens our madness with every crashing repetition of our recreation. We come to represent something we have never understood and have never really been willing to confront. In the end, like Frankenstein, we are, after all, the Creature itself.

Mary Shelley uses the imagery and evocations of the natural earth to establish a striking contrast with the “filthy” creation of Victor Frankenstein. Victor’s power, as Sherwin understands it, is “the power to wound” and the natural world is the victim of this monstrousness we’ve constructed (886). For Daniel Cottom, “All power, whether it be over nature or over society, represents a monstrous misrepresentation of desire” (66).

Frankenstein, is rooted in the ideals of Romantics like Wordsworth, Coleridge and, of course, Percy Blythe Shelley. Nature is contrasted with what is monstrous in the novel. The delights of natural beauty and peace almost entirely escape the notice of Victor as he works in his lab, is pursuing his creation, or is steeped in his miserable suffering. His “eyes were insensible to the charms of nature” in “a most beautiful season” (63). He is so immersed in his work that sights that had always provided “supreme delight” such as “the blossoms or the expanding leaves” are missed (64-5). His “labours” are no longer “alleviated by the bright sun or gentle breezes of spring” (187). Through the sweat of his brow, Frankenstein is blinded to what is truly sublime and real.  

Nature proves its healing properties after Victor collapses in emotional exhaustion and after he has been confronted by the Creature in the cottage (74, 180). In better circumstances nature could create “the most delightful sensations” and fill Victor with “ecstasy” or cheer him with “emotions of gentleness and pleasure” (85, 185). The Creature also has his spirits lifted by the beauty of nature. He exclaims, “the past was blotted from my memory, the present was tranquil, and the future gilded by bright rays of hope and anticipations of joy” (149-150). Thoughtlessness in a moment in time seems the only place that can transcend the miseries of this world.

Frankenstein, like the rest of humanity, struggles to recapture something that is lost, and yet the redemptive qualities of nature are all around. Victor’s friend Henry Clerval, likened to the Romantic Percy Shelley, best represents humanity’s connection with nature. Clerval was “alive to every scene; joyful when he saw the beauties of the setting sun, and more happy when he beheld it rise, and recommence a new day. He pointed out to me the shifting colours of the landscape, and the appearances of the sky. ‘This is what it is to live’, he cried, ‘now I enjoy existence!’” (205-6). For Clerval was “a being formed in the ‘very poetry of nature’” and “his soul overflowed with ardent affections” for the nature “he loved with ardour” (208). Manson and Stewart comment that nature is “the medium which the individual of heightened imaginative capacity is able to penetrate and so experience the infinite in which all is unified” (229).

Mary Shelley’s Romantic dualism is evident in Walton’s initial description of the half-dead Frankenstein that “Even broken in spirit as he is, no one can feel more deeply than he does the beauties of nature. The starry sky, the sea, the every sight afforded by those wonderful regions, seems still to have the power of elevating his soul from earth”. His life is “a double existence” and through his misery, he is seen as able to lift his being “like a celestial spirit” as he is able to “retire into himself” (25-6). So as Frankenstein’s creature takes on multiple meanings, nature stands as a literal rock that is central, but separate, from this world. Nature is paradise, peace, tranquility and filled with the powers of healing. It is most markedly, what the Monster is not. In all its complexity and rich ambiguity, the mythos that Mary Shelley has created can be reduced to a simple binary language.

Nature becomes the other important character of the text. It is most directly connected with the possibility of the infinite and through the cycling of its seasons, the fixtures of the earth are the most permanent and least affected by the mortality that haunts the other characters of the piece. Lightening is the creative spark that brings the Creature to life. The mountains of Switzerland stand as gods that can “prognosticate peace” or “mock at [one’s] unhappiness” (92). Victor’s journey into the valleys of his boyhood paradise is “a scene of singular beauty” that is “wonderful and sublime” and appears as “habitations of another race of beings” (120). In his dreams that night, after the crashes of lightening and rushing of the river lull him to sleep, the “grand shapes” of “maternal nature” – “the unstained snowy mountaintops, the glittering pinnacle, the pine woods, and ragged bare ravine; the eagle, soaring amidst the clouds” gather round and “minister” to him (120-1, 123). These are the only spirits that seem to dwell in Frankenstein’s world as there are no other gods to hear the pleading of the mortal suffering below.